Camino Continues: Samos to Sarria

Distance walked: 15km

Remaining distance to Santiago: 115.2km

Handsome Husband’s arrival in Samos was quite the surprise. He hadn’t made a plan beyond finding me, so we had to figure out the logistics of food and a place to sleep. Given that he wasn’t a pilgrim, he wouldn’t have been allowed stay in the hostel (and I’m fairly sure he wouldn’t have wanted to if he’d taken a look at the place!). Instead, we found a private room over a café across the road. For me, this was one of the few times I got a private room, although it was no 5-star suite. It was basic but clean and the cotton sheets, as always, were a sublime treat. It was good to get a break from the chorus of snoring in the shared dorms, too.

The next morning, on our first wedding anniversary, we set off on the trail towards Santiago, some 14km westwards. By then I had walked some 700km across France and Spain and I hadn’t taken a wrong turn along the way. That morning, in the company of Husband, I took a wrong turn. Fifteen minutes after we’d strapped on our backpacks and set out, we found ourselves right back where we started. We laugh about it now but at the time I was immensely frustrated. I just wanted to walk and I wasn’t used to the daily company, slowing me down and leading me astray. Plus, I wondered whether our wrong turn was a metaphor for something bigger: was married life always going to distract me in the opposite direction?!

Handsome Husband was full of enthusiasm and questions as we walked along the trail. We found wild almonds and apples, and he was like a child in his amazement. Me? I was like the wizened old dog by then, I’d already seen 700km of grapes and figs, almonds and sunflowers: I wasn’t so excited by these things any more. The difference between us struck me as really sad: I had been so absorbed in the daily “task” of walking, I thought I’d stopped being in awe of the landscape around me. I know now that I took it all in on a quieter level. I didn’t express the same surprise as he did, but I still remember the smells and the countryside as though I was there only last week. It all went in.

Husband wore jeans (jeans!), trainers, and a hoodie while he walked. He stood out like a tourist and I could barely believe he’d not brought any proper walking gear! He also very kindly carried my backpack but exclaimed how tiring it was to do so. Again, in my “old dog” mode I commented: try carrying it for 700km! We stopped for coffee and omelettes along the way, and tried to catch up on all that had happened in the weeks since we’d seen each other.

When someone asks you: “How was the camino?” it can be very tricky to answer. The obvious replies cover the weather, the food, the company. It’s easy to respond on these terms as though it’s a regular vacation. But, if you get into a different head space with all that walking, then it’s very tricky to evaluate the experience in a few sound bites. How could I tell him that I had changed on a fundamental level? How could I evaluate what that change was, or would mean, when I hadn’t yet articulated it to myself?

The 15km were among the slowest of my whole camino but I put it down to the distraction and the company! By the time we eventually arrived in Sarria, it was obvious to me that the final leg of the journey was going to be busy. The streets were full of fresh-faced pilgrims who’d very obviously just arrived and were getting ready to walk the last 100km or so to Santiago. They stood out in their pristine-looking gear and energetic strides. I met plenty of pilgrims who, like me, had been rattling around on the trail for weeks and who took a skeptical view of these new pilgrims. I don’t like to get into the “us versus them” mentality of the camino because in my experience, there was always someone faster or slower, always someone who’d walked a greater or lesser distance, and there was always someone who was more arrogant or humble. Comparing ourselves to others is a dangerous game. And yet, as I looked around the streets in Sarria, I found myself resenting these “blow-ins” who were doing the easy bit at the end, all to get a bit of paper.

Husband and I found a basic but spacious private room for the next two nights, and enjoyed the relative cosmopolitan vibe of the town. By that, I mean there was an Italian restaurant so we had an anniversary dinner that didn’t involve chorizo! That “down time” was sweet for us. I had been away for five weeks and had another week or so of walking to do. By then, I’d given up on the dream of walking from Santiago on to Finisterre. My feet were too sore, the weather was turning cold, and I’d heard that the hostels along the way were already closing up for the winter. That meant there were longer gaps between hostels and there was no way I was able to walk 30km between them. I was heavy-hearted about not being able to “finish” the way I had wanted to, but it was for the best.

So, the reunion with Husband allowed us to re-connect while I was still in Spain, still en route. I didn’t realize it at the time but it took the pressure off us having a big reunion at an airport or bus station. Like I said earlier, I was in a different head space while I was on camino, so flying home and reuniting with him all at once would probably have been overwhelming. Getting to see each other in Spain helped defuse all of that.

We drank cheap but delicious red wine and gazed out on to the night lights of Sarria. We wished each other a happy anniversary. We had a hiatus from our lives – me, from the exertion of walking and he from the exertion of work – and enjoyed being.

And then it was time to go.

 

 

 

Missing the Camino de Santiago

Lately, I’ve been thinking about some of the things I miss from my camino journey. It’s springtime here and I’m seeing the early signs of sunshine and warmer weather. After the darkness of winter, I feel I’m waking up all over again. New possibilities, new ideas, and new summer sandals lay ahead. And sometimes, the renewed temptation to go walking in Spain. 🙂

Even though my camino was only 6 weeks long, it takes up a huge place in my heart. It feels like an era of its own – just like my time living at certain addresses or working certain jobs.

Walking it made the time slow down and stretch out. In the same way travelling by train feels more reflective than travelling by airplane, 6 weeks of walking kind of equates to years’ worth of everyday living. I had lots of time to take in my changing surroundings, reflect, and grow.

While I walked, I met new people every day and we joked about all the things we would *not* miss about camino life:

Washing our clothes in a sink

– The endless supply of baguette

– The endless supply of chorizo

– Painful feet

– Sleeping in bunk beds

Back then, I didn’t know that there’d be things I’d really miss about the camino journey, too. Living out of a backpack and walking every day couldn’t replace my “real life”, but it brought great richness all the same.

Speaking of backpacks, I miss the simplicity of living with just 2 sets of clothing and not having a lot of “stuff” to my name. I didn’t have to worry about looking professional or trendy, and I didn’t have to think about vacuuming either! I came to love being a nomad with few possessions to my name.

I made great friends on camino and miss seeing them more regularly. I miss unexpectedly bumping into them in a random, small village and sharing an impromptu coffee together while catching up.

What is it that I miss, exactly?

Is it the people themselves, the conversation, or the spontaneity of our connection?

It’s all of these things.

I also miss the honesty of sharing coffee with the people I truly liked, and walking away from the people I didn’t. That was a skill I learned with time, and it was a real game-changer for me to realise that I didn’t owe anyone my company or my energy. I could choose whether to be social, and with whom. I could choose to walk away. For me, this was enormously refreshing. With all the politics and strings that go with having a job, neighbours, family, and friends, I miss the honesty of such clear-cut priorities.

I miss the deliciously smooth but delightfully cheap red wine – I don’t know that I’ll ever get over the novelty of paying €1 for a glass of wine in a café bar. Since camino, every glass of wine feels scandalously over-priced!

These days, what I miss most of all is the fresh air and open landscape. This spring, I’ve had hailstones and showers, stormy winds, and hazy sun. I’ve had days of thermal underwear and days of open-toed shoes – so you know, the weather is all over the place. But somehow it feels like there’s more air too – more fresh, breezy, summer-filled air…and it reminds me of my camino.

It’s such a luxury to spend hours and hours outdoors every day. I guess farmers already know this but people like me, with indoor jobs, are largely removed from nature. We’re sheltered from the elements and spend our days looking to the near horizons instead of the far distance. *I* spend most of my days looking at a computer screen but on camino, I spent my days looking at the trail ahead – made of gravel, concrete, woodland moss, or stepping stones across a river. The scenery was always changing. The weather dictated a lot of my progress. I inhaled the smells of wild herbs and clay. I felt the warmth of the sun on my forehead. I felt I was a natural being in a natural environment, and the contentment bubbled up from within.

I miss the freedom of seeing the sky for hours at a time. I miss the healthy indulgence of fresh air – hours and hours worth, every day. After I left the city of Burgos, I entered into the middle section of the Camino Francés – the Meseta – and spent a week walking through a flat landscape, full of wheat fields and corn. I could see the trail for miles ahead and the flat horizons are said to be mind-numbing. And yet, I remember this section of camino with great fondness. Why? Because I could *really* see the sky and take in the landscape. I miss it because it felt full of fresh air, without the interruptions of buildings or trees. The autumn breeze swept for miles across the Meseta and it carried a great sense of innocent freedom for me – the stuff of childhood, when I spent hours outdoors every day.

It’s the simple things I miss most of all.

So much so, I might have to go stretch my legs this Easter weekend and go see the sky! 🙂

What about you?

Food and Drink on the Camino de Santiago

Paella....yuuummm

When I wrote about the things I missed while walking the camino, I mentioned missing vegetables and a kitchen. I wasn’t alone in this – you’d be surprised how many people talk about missing vegetables when they’re out there walking the trail for weeks on end. Fruit is pretty easy to find but somehow the veg was a bit trickier to locate – I guess it takes a bit more effort to provide plates of roasted squash or broccoli.

Oh man, I don’t think I even saw broccoli on my camino journey, never mind ate it!

Green vegetables were sorely lacking.

People talk about the food being basic and repetitive on camino. Breakfast was much the same every day, like a coffee with some toasted baguette or a croissant (tough life, I know!):

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Spanish omelette in the background, chocolate croissant in the foreground!

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A big breakfast: baguette with ham, chocolate croissant, and coffee

Even if I wanted a bowl of oatmeal or muesli, they were nowhere to be found. Suddenly, my not-so-fancy choices in “real life” seemed stupidly, ridiculously indulgent in rural Spain.

Still, this is a first-world problem and you’ll notice, I didn’t die of starvation at any point! 🙂

With more than 150,000 people on the route in 2013, feeding people was surely an exercise in efficiency – time efficiency as well as economic efficiency. Carbohydrates are cheap and easy to prepare. Protein is guaranteed to sell – after all, people are walking many miles and need high-energy foods to sustain them, so sandwiches usually consisted of dry baguette with either Spanish ham, chorizo, or Spanish tortilla. No additional lettuce or tomato or whatever other sandwich-like fillings you usually have – it was bread and meat – no more, no less. I learned afterwards that you can ask for sachets of mayonnaise separately so I’ll pass on that nugget of wisdom to those of you who’ll walk the way soon! I ate chorizo, ham, or some other pork product every day – and often 2-3 times a day.

By the end, I thought I’d had my fill of chorizo and would never touch the stuff again.

But surprisingly, a month or so after I returned home, I took an unexpected craving for the stuff and I threw it into every dish for about a week, delighting on the spicy, oily, meatiness. Lovely Husband was entertained by my change of heart, and watched with quiet bemusement.

Spanish tortillas (omelettes made with potato and onion) are available everywhere. With the exception of “Banana Man in a Van” in the middle of the Pyrenees, I don’t know that I saw eggs prepared any way other than in the tortilla/omelette. Boiled, scrambled, poached, with bacon and hash browns? Forget it all – it was omelette or nothing!

Lunch and dinner menus were interchangeable. Availing of the “pilgrim menu” was a cheap way to eat, as it meant getting a 3-course meal, served with baguette and wine, for just 10 Euro. I told friends about this when I came home and they swooned at the sound of it.

A 3-course meal – with wine and bread – for only TEN EURO, they cried!

Sign us up!

When I talk about bread, I mean a basket of freshly cut baguette.

When I say wine, I mean a whole bottle of wine – per person!

A bargain, for sure.

And with the exception of one glass (incidentally, pictured below), the wine was always delicious!

A glass of house wine “vino tinto” usually set me back something in the region of €1-1.50. I bought whole bottles with the price tag of just €5 but yet, I met pilgrims who bought locally-produced wine for as little as €2 per bottle. So when you crunch the numbers on that you realize that €1 per glass is a nice profit for the bar owner. Still, I was more than happy to get such a bargain, and happily handed over my Euro to drink smooth red wines from the Rioja region all the way across northern Spain.

There was no chance I’d get wine so cheaply at home so between you and me, I should have drank more of it – waaay more!

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But back to the 3-course meal…

In case you’re imagining fine dining with candlelight and fancy creamy sauces – forget it. Quite a lot, I ate chicken fillets that were quickly fried in a hot pan and dripping with hot oil. Nothing wrong with them, but there wasn’t always a lot of love in the cooking. Like I say, it was largely about efficiency.

Get ’em in, get ’em fed, get ’em out again!

And in case you’re imagining decadent deserts – maybe homebaked pies or creamy Black Forest Gateau – forget it. Often, dessert was a pot of yogurt (without the fruity compote at the top/bottom) so it wasn’t luxurious. I was glad of the extra sugar though, and have no complaints. And really, a 3-course meal with bread and wine for €10 – I’m surprised they offered a dessert at all!

The pilgrim menu didn’t vary much across the 800km. Over and over, I was handed a piece of paper like this one, with details of the menu printed in four languages. The first course offered more variety than the second course, and I learned that the mixed salad was a great way to get fresh vegetables into my system.

Menu

(Photo credit)

When I ordered the salad pictured below, the woman behind the bar took my order and wrote the details down in a notepad.

She then came out from behind the bar, walked away from me out the front door, and crossed the quiet country road.

Confused, I watched as she gently hopped over a low wall, and proceeded to cut two heads of lettuce – fresh from the garden!

When the leaves landed up on my plate minutes later, I thought it the most magical salad I had ever seen – and it gave me a new appreciation into just how much work goes into feeding thousands of hungry pilgrims!

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Egg, Tomato, Tuna, Onion, Olive, and White Asparagus

The quality of, and variety of, main courses varied from place to place. I didn’t see paella listed on the pilgrim menu that often – unfortunately. I’d have happily eaten it far more often than just 4-5 times. Some of the restaurants also had a “Menu del dia”, which listed their daily specials. If you wanted a break from the repetitive pilgrim menu, and were happy to pay a bit more, you’d get a better meal – generally.

One of the best meals I had was in a place called Mansilla de las Mulas, where my fish was battered in golden crumb and fried to perfection – it was a joy to my palate! I took a doggy bag away with me and ate it the next day for lunch, under a shady tree. The chef was delighted. He told me that too often, they have to throw food in the bin and no-one thinks to take leftovers on to the trail the next day. I was thrilled to have good food two days in a row!

One of my worst meals was in the town called Hospital de Órbigo, where I ate alone one evening. I wandered around looking for somewhere to eat at 7pm. This was way too early, as most Spaniards themselves don’t eat until well after 9pm, and many pilgrim meals don’t start until 8. I ordered a “fresh homemade” Hawaiian pizza but 20 minutes later, was presented with a rather bad frozen pizza-like-thing. The base was hard and dry, like cardboard. The sauce tasted like cheap ketchup with too much vinegar. I ate about 1/4 but eventually left it on my plate in search of something else.

First world problems, right? (eye roll at myself!)

Anyway, back to the 3 course meal…

You’ll see in the menu that they list “chicken”, “pork”, and “fish”. One day, I asked “What kind of fish?”. I’m not sure what I expected them to say, exactly, but when they rolled their eyes in return I realized I might have been asking a bit too much! I told myself to just eat it, be grateful, and shut up!

That said, the Spanish love their fish. Walking through some of the larger towns and cities, I passed supermarkets dedicated entirely to freezers full of fish – of all kinds! They sold nothing else but frozen fish – imagine!

In regular supermarkets, I passed entire aisles full of tinned fish, like the one below. I checked the labels here – there were no tins of beans, hotdogs, or sweetcorn – this was all fish!

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Some days, dinner was heavy on the carb and light on nutrition!

If you’ve a sensitivity or allergy to gluten or to wheat, I think it’s tough going on camino. Baguette was served with every meal. Quite often, it was the main component of the meal – especially for breakfast. I met only one coeliac on my travels and she bought rice cakes in the bigger towns and cities, and carried them with her. At least they were light but she had to plan ahead in a way that most people don’t. She learned enough Spanish to be able to explain her condition to bar owners and restaurant staff, and while the rest of us munched on pastries and sandwiches, she asked for a plate of cheese or ham which she then spread on her rice cakes. She probably couldn’t eat the ubiquitous chorizo either, now that I think about it, but she seemed to find a way of managing her needs quite well.

The trick to walking the camino with special dietary needs? Learn lots of Spanish. Really.

I think vegetarians might get away okay but anything more unusual than that will require language skills. Staff are accommodating and often do everything they can to help, but they don’t always have the English (or German, Korean, etc.) to understand those needs. If you’ve got special requests, you’re better to have the language skills to articulate them.

As I progressed westwards into the province of Galicia, the food changed quite a bit. I started noticing stews and broths a lot more – and I found myself wanting them too. The northwest of Spain is said to be like the west of Ireland with stone walls, small green fields, and a chilly dampness to the air. Of course, it was early October by then so the autumn weather had an impact on things too.

I found myself desperately craving cups of hot tea, bowls of hot broth, and hearty, meaty dishes. This was such a contrast from the previous weeks, where the sun had been beating down on us every day and heavy, hearty meals were sometimes too much for my system.

Not so in Galicia though – I gorged on meat and soups as often as I could.

By the end of camino I was eating 5-6 meals a day and was still *always* ravenous – I guess walking all those miles had burned off a few calories after all!

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Also in Galicia, I noticed more and more donation stations along the route. The last 100km or so are the busiest along Camino Francés. Thousands of pilgrims start their camino at Sarria, just over 100km from Santiago. This is the minimum distance you’d have to walk if you want to be issued with a certificate (compostela) for completing Camino.

Thankfully, the coffee shops are plentiful along this stretch. In between, some of the locals leave out flasks of tea and coffee, with snacks and treats of all sorts, on the side of the trail. The idea is that you take refreshment if you need it – and you pay a donation into the box provided.

Some of the donation tables were a bit “rustic” and held more wild flowers and coloured pebbles than they did *actual food*. Ordinarily, I love my wild flowers and coloured pebbles but I couldn’t eat them, so I’d sometimes take the coffee and quickly move on. The flowers were lovely but they didn’t satisfy my empty belly!

This table was very impressive to me, though. It screamed of cleanliness and organization. I liked that the mugs were turned downwards, and not filled with dust or insects. I also loved that they’d thought to offer paper towel – what a novelty! I loved finding these little tables along the way and I spent the last 100km of Camino sampling my way through all of the hot coffee and home-baked pastries I could find! 🙂

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At different points along the way, I ate wild food and free food, too. Sometimes the local farmers generously hand out fruit from the side of their orchards and vines – so I saw pilgrims coming away beaming with glee at the handfuls of fresh tomatoes and grapes they’d been given. Very cute! Other times, I passed trees and bushes that were heavy with fruit – like the fig tree that this beauty came from:

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Imagine the decadence! I don’t think I’d ever had sun-ripened fresh figs before and I swear, they were a highlight in what-was-otherwise a very tough day! I can still taste the juicy sweetness – wow!

There’s one particular town in Galicia that’s famous for its “pulpo” or octopus. I heard it was delicious but I didn’t dare try it – I’ve got too vivid an imagination and I’ve watched too many low quality science fiction movies in my youth – the image of those creatures lurking in the deep has me ruined. Interestingly though, the town itself is not beside the sea. It’s not even close to the sea – so I would love to know how on earth it became famous for its octopus when the nearest coastline is more than 100km away!

By the time I arrived in Galicia it was early October and the autumn fruits were heaving from the trees. I took a shortcut from my hostel one evening in Vega de Valcarce and came upon this bounty of windfall apples – of course, I stopped to eat a few – deliciously sweet!

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Eventually, I came home with a renewed awe for my body. Not only was it strong enough to cross Spain the old-fashioned way (on foot!) but it did so on a very limited diet. All the knowledge and training I’ve had on nutrition went out the window in Spain. The food was basic and it was generally good, but there wasn’t a whole lot of variety.

I was amazed that my body rose to the greatest physical challenge I had ever presented it with – and on such a basic diet.

Every day, I eat food that is of better quality and higher nutritional value than I did on Camino – only to sit in an office and work on a computer!

On Camino, I carried my body and all my belongings across a country!

I climbed mountains.

I walked in the rain, the cold, the sweltering sun.

I walked for hours at a time, day after day after day.

I burned calories by the bucket load and my body needed rapid repair to cope with the physical exertion.

That’s when I needed the high-grade nutrition but I survived on copious amounts of baguette, coffee, and chorizo – AMAZING!

I came home thrilled and buoyant, and surprised that I didn’t have a cold, a flu, or some sort of low-grade malnutrition. I thought my body was truly outstanding for working so hard with such little nutritional support. It made me realize just how little I need to survive – not just in terms of physical possessions but in terms of food intake, too. Our bodies are designed to glean nutrition from the most humble food, and somehow mine had walked an outstanding 500 miles and thrived.

Love it!

I came home to kitchen cupboards full of food – so much variety! I gasped at the sight of breakfast cereals and muesli, casually sitting on the counter top, waiting to be eaten. I marvelled at the generosity of a fresh pineapple – so much sweetness and I didn’t have to worry about the weight of carrying it! I came home and gazed at the contents of my fridge in baffled wonder – so much food – what would I do with it all?

Why, eat it, of course! 🙂

What were your food & drink experiences on your travels, whether camino or otherwise?

What did you love to eat?

What did you groan at the sight of?

And if you had any special dietary needs, how did you manage them?

 

A New Beginning in Burgos

When I decided to stop in Burgos and get a private room, I knew a few things:

  • I was running on empty
  • I needed some space and time to myself
  • I needed a chance to mentally regroup

I slept soundly the first night in my little single bed. Such bliss! I planned to continue walking the next day but when I woke in the morning, my body said otherwise.

I asked if they had space to let me stay a second night.

, the receptionist replied.

Delighted and relieved, I went back to bed and slept for another 5 hours!

This was *my kind of camino!*

Even though I planned my camino journey in just a month, I knew in advance what my “challenges” were likely to be. I wasn’t that worried about breaking a leg or getting lost on the trail. I wasn’t even worried about the alleged lack of beds or the fact that I spoke very little Spanish. Before I ever strapped the backpack to my shoulders I knew that these would be my main personal challenges:

Separately, I had a sense of what my physical challenges would be but funnily enough, they tied into the personal challenges above. I guess it’s a case of:

Where the mind goes, the body will follow.

How did I know what my stumbling blocks were? Well, these were my challenges in everyday “real life”. I knew I carried them with me to France and Spain, too.

I knew who I was “going in”.

Question was, who would I be “coming out” at the end?

Time, and lots of walking, would tell.

I’m not ashamed to admit that by the time I got to Burgos, I was starting to get a little crazy around the edges. My nights in Villambistia and Atapuerca pushed my buttons and I felt frazzled almost all the time. I had a notion that walking Camino would fill me with blissful contentment and radiant connection with my fellow pilgrims: so why was I feeling grouchy and tearful?

I put it down to being exhausted and over-stimulated, and just not getting enough sleep to recalibrate. Simple as that.

I’m like this in my everyday life, too. If I work too hard, play too hard, and don’t get enough “down time” on my own, I get strung out and sick. In my “real life”, I have a private room every night. I have a front door, which keeps some of the madness at bay. When my life gets too loud, I have ways of turning down the volume.

On Camino, I didn’t have any of those things, so taking 2 nights in a private room in Burgos was my equivalent of “turning down the volume”.

I slept a lot, I explored the city on my own, and I ate a beef burger (not chorizo, not baguette, not pork!) in a trendy, hip wine bar full of young people in a party mood.

Burgos was one of the spots on my Camino where I got to hit the “RESET” button and it gave me a new beginning.

Getting some sleep helped quieten some of the crazy and I came to realize a few things:

  • I need what I need. Some days I need to walk fast, others I need to walk slow. Some days I need a private room to sleep and be quiet. Instead of judging myself and berating myself for needing these things, I’m better off just tending to those needs as best I can, and getting on with things.
  • I was roughly 1/3 of the way into my 500 mile journey. For almost 2 weeks, I’d walked with a tentative hope in my heart. I hoped to make it to Santiago and I wanted to make it to Santiago, but I was never sure I would make it to Santiago. I had done no physical training and I was never sure whether my body would continue to rise to the challenge. In Burgos, I realized I was 1/3 of the way “there” and that knowing filled me with confidence for the next leg of the journey.
  • I needed to walk more for myself. At different points up to then, I’d changed my pace and plans to suit others – usually because I didn’t want to offend them. I had a notion that walking Camino meant we were all equal, all humble, and all with the same agenda. I was a bit misguided in that belief. In Burgos, I realized I needed to get a bit more selfish about my own process, my own needs, and my own journey. I needed to “grab it by the horns” and go make it my own.

I got the rest and sleep I needed. I turned down some of the crazy. I left my little bed and the city feeling a bit tougher, a bit stronger, and a bit more focused.

I didn’t know what it would bring but I knew I felt ready for the challenge. Burgos had given me a chance to hit “RESET” and start again.

Does this sound familiar at all? What did *you* do to hit the “RESET” button in your life – whether on camino or elsewhere?

 

 

 

 

 

Bad Tourist: Ignoring a UNESCO World Heritage Site

In some other universe, on some other trip across northern Spain, I would have stopped off at the UNESCO world heritage site at Atapuerca. I would have enjoyed exploring this historic spot, where the archeological dig is ongoing and the human activity is more than 1,000,000 (yes, 1 million) years old. Oh yeah, and I would have loved the opportunity to learn more about how our early ancestors were cannibals!

I’m not making it up. You’ll find more info here: Archaeological Site of Atapuerca.

On my camino walk from Villambistia, I have to admit that the tourist activities of Atapuerca held no appeal.

It’s not every day that one gets to visit a site where human activity dates back a million years. And I was a tourist in Spain, so you’d think I’d have jumped at the chance to dip into the history of the area, learn a bit more, take some time out to explore the sites a bit – right?

Right….but I had *zero* interest. Honestly, you could have lined up Sean Connery, George Clooney, and Brad Bitt in a line in front of me and I would have had the same response as I did to the prehistoric caves….hmmm…..yeah……whatever! (eye roll)

Ordinarily I like to think of myself as being a bit more cultured but ordinarily, I know where I’m sleeping at night and I don’t have to spend hours walking to find such a bed. So, I have a bit more head space and generosity about exploring the sites and having fun.

There were days on camino when some competitive streak kicked in – one I didn’t even know I had – and securing a bed, a meal, and a shower, became my entire mission in life. It surprised me but everything else was secondary. It makes sense in a way. I mean, if I couldn’t secure a bed in Atapuerca, I would have to walk on to the next village and maybe even the next one after that. I’d have to walk in the early afternoon sunshine and it was around 100 degrees F, which felt even hotter with a full backpack on my shoulders.

So the poor prehistoric cannibals didn’t stand a chance….and it never even crossed my mind to walk 3km off trail to the UNESCO site, and then walk 3km back. I didn’t know I was so goal-orientated in life but frankly, those extra 6km weren’t bringing me any closer to Santiago so there was *no way* I was walking them! I’d walked over 270km by then and had another 520km to go. I would walk to a pharmacy, a bathroom, or a bar…but otherwise I wanted to walk only towards Santiago.

The caves would have to wait for another time.

But what about you: did you go visit the historic site when you passed through Atapuerca?

Or have you ever been somewhere and didn’t do the *must do* tourist thing for that place? Is it really a wasted opportunity or is it just something that everyone does but no one admits to?

 

 

 

 

The People you Meet on Camino

Everyone who walked the Camino de Santiago before told me:

“You’ll meet so many great people along the way!”

Even if they hadn’t walked it themselves, invariably they knew someone who had (a friend, a cousin, a neighbour, or a friend’s cousin’s neighbour….!) who said the same thing.

I did meet many great people on my Camino journey. Quite literally, I met some of the most generous, interesting, and inspiring people along the way – the kind of people I just wouldn’t have met if I’d stayed at my desk job and been sensible 🙂

Thinking back to the night I spent in the small village of Azofra, I’m reminded of one particular lady…

She and I met on the road out of Navarette days earlier (remember, when I couldn’t find the yellow arrows and I backtracked several times before a group of Koreans kindly pointed me in the right direction?)

Back then, this lady and I walked beside each other in the early morning darkness, with the tap-tap-tap of our walking poles on the gravel trail. She spoke softly and apologised for her poor English every few minutes, but the woman was the very epitome of goodness and grace on that cold morning.

Through her, I learned that some 20% of the population in South Korea are Catholic. I was equally surprised to find her spoken English was so good that we had plenty of things to chat (and giggle) about. Jokes are a real test of fluency in any language and she was delightful company.

She recognised very little of the food presented to her each day, given that Camino cuisine is rather Spanish-centric. She wasn’t used to eating so much baguette, and had never encountered chorizo and Iberian ham before, but surprised me by saying she enjoyed the food along the way. Rice cakes could be found in occasional supermarkets and eggs, it seems, are the same everywhere 🙂

She was in her mid-40s and worked as a housekeeper. Her husband was a small-scale farmer who grew rice and vegetables, and also worked for an NGO organisation to ensure fair conditions for other farmers. She explained they had a very modest income and together, they had two sons who were in high school. No doubt, but those two boys were their pride and joy. Quite simply, she beamed when she spoke about them. In the early morning light, surrounded by farmland and trees, she oozed softness and love when she spoke about her sons. She hoped they’d have great lives of opportunity and prosperity. She hoped they’d never have to struggle in the way she and her husband had.

Listening to her made me choke up a little.

And then she told me about how she came to be standing there that morning…

Some years earlier, she saw a TV programme about the Camino (apparently there was a very famous one that most South Koreans quote as their inspiration for walking). She hadn’t heard of this old pilgrimage route before but after watching the TV show she just knew:

I want to walk that.

But, she and her husband had a modest income and two sons to raise – they didn’t have the money for such an extravagant trip. Travelling from South Korea to Europe is expensive and that was only the start of the bill: there were weeks’ worth of living expenses to finance, too. Her family could see that the Camino tugged at her heart-strings but the sons were still in school. It would be several more years, if ever, before she and her husband would have spare cash for such a journey.

The Camino could wait.

But just as she wished a life of goodness for her sons, they wished that her life, too, would be filled with dreams-come-true.

The two young men took up part-time jobs and without her ever knowing it, joined her husband in secretly saving for her trip.

Quietly, steadily, they saved the money to give this woman a once-in-a-lifetime gift.

They surprised her and in the loveliest way possible, they sent her packing!

They wanted her to know that although they were thousands of miles away, they loved her with all their hearts. They prioritised her dream, knowing that she never would. They wanted for her dream to come true.

She had travelled alone to Spain without knowing a word of Spanish, and had since met other Korean pilgrims with whom she walked. The morning she and I met, we kept pace with each other and swapped stories about our lives, our generous husbands, and what we hoped to get out of our time walking the Camino. We both choked up when she spoke about her gratitude to her family. It was hard not to.

She married a good man and was raising two more. Together, they had seen to it that this good woman had a chance to make her dream come true.

Their generosity and selflessness buoyed her all the way to Spain, and every day she walked Camino. For her, it didn’t matter how sore she got, how tired she got, how little of the food or language she understood – she felt blessed to be there at all. Everything was a bonus. She soaked up every micro second for the gift that it was.

Pretty special, eh?

 

 

Pamplona

In Pamplona, the staff at the main tourist office helped me find private accommodation for the night. I had just done my 4th day of walking and it had been a short one, at only 10km. If I kept up that pace, I’d never reach Santiago. But I hoped that taking some time out to rest and reconfigure would help me start again with renewed strength.

In looking for a bed, I wanted something central and cheap. Nothing was going to be quite as cheap as the main albergue but I didn’t fancy sharing with 113 other pilgrims. The woman behind the desk pointed out a few options from a list and after a little bit of sweet-talking, agreed to phone the establishment and book the room for me.

When would I like to check in?

Oh…in about ten minutes!

I followed the map and walked around the corner, down the street, and found myself at the front door of a non-descript building with the name of the pensión over the door. I’m guessing the building also held private apartments because my sort-of B&B was on the third floor (though, given they didn’t serve breakfast I really should just call it a “B”). Outside, the sun was bright and white hot but the inside of my “B” was dark. The wooden hallway was narrow, and the space inside the door was barely large enough for me to stand there with my backpack on my shoulders. I had to squint my eyes to adjust to the artificial lighting. Without any major welcome or ceremony, the woman took my cash and handed me a bunch of keys. My room was the last one down the hall. And she went back to watching TV.

Initially, I was relieved to have found a private room – especially with such ease. The place was quiet, and after the daily scramble and hustle of the albergues, I was glad. Getting a private room in a busy city for such a price was great, and I was delighted to keep the costs down. But when I turned the key the lock and opened the door to my room, my heart sank: the space was tiny. I had never thought to view the room before committing to pay. Had I done so, I might have seen the chipped paint, the exposed wiring, and the metal bars on the windows. The single bed was backed into a corner. There was maybe 30cm of floor space at end and maybe a metre of floor space to the side, which somehow included a wardrobe, a small table, and a beside locker. There was enough room to turn around, but there was nothing to spare. Thinking back on it now, I’m inclined to think it was fine – I mean, how much space did I really need? At the time, however, I took it personally.

There’s a saying that goes something like this: The way you do anything is the way you do everything. I don’t think that’s the exact quotation but I first learned this saying nearly 20 years ago and it’s been churning away in the back of my mind ever since. I’ve spent the years analysing it and trying to establish whether it is really true. The moment I walked into my private box room, I had an immediate thought:

Is this what I have amounted to?

After all the ups and downs of my life, is this the best I can do?

And if I were to die here, is this a reflection of my life, my achievements, and my worth?

The thought had slipped in so quickly that I might have missed it. I felt I had failed again and looking around, I was rather miserable. I guess I had expected a bit more space, a bit more modernity, and something that looked more like a hotel, as I know it. This room was rough around the edges and oppressively small, and I suddenly felt lonely. Surprisingly, I found myself missing my fellow pilgrims and imagined they were all back in the albergue, chatting, laughing, and making plans to explore the city together. I thought: I’ve made a huge mistake, coming here. I missed the sense of community that I’d come to know. I still remember feeling hugely conflicted about how to proceed, and how best to take care of myself on Camino. Being in loud hostels and being around so many people had reduced me to tears, but removing myself from the crowd and taking time to rest also reduced me to tears. I wasn’t usually so teary-eyed and I was really unsure about how to mind myself. What should I do?

Thankfully, I remembered another saying.

‘HALT’ stands for Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired, and it’s an acronym for a sort of emotional stock-take. When life is busy or intense, it can be easy to get swept along and lose track of how we’re feeling. Being hungry, angry, lonely, or tired can make us vulnerable and extra-sensitive, and lead to further problems. So taking a minute to stop and check whether we’re feeling any of these things gives us information to make informed, supportive decisions. The man who taught me this has a lovely way of explaining it and encourages us to, “Take it easy. Don’t make any big decisions. Stay in out of the cold and mind yourself.” Simple advice, but a revelation for the likes of me, who spends a lot of life living in my head.

On quick reflection, I seemed to be:

somewhat hungry

not at all angry

quite lonely

and very tired

So, instead of looking for another room or regretting that I wasn’t in the main albergue, I decided to make the best of what I had. Yes, the room was cramped and a bit dingy but it was mine. It allowed me more personal space than I’d known in the previous five days. It was quiet, it was central, and from what I could tell, the sheets on the bed were clean. Heck, there’d been no sheets at all the previous few days and sheets were a luxury! The bathroom down the hall was spacious and clean, and I had the comfort of washing both my clothes and myself without a line of people waiting outside the door. There were certain benefits to the place, and I had to remind myself that this was one day and one night in my life – it wasn’t a reflection of my entire experience.

However, the attitude I applied to myself was an accurate reflection of my everyday experience. I’d walked for only four days but I’d spent a good chunk of that time comparing myself to others and deciding I was a failure. I was too slow, too emotional, and too sensitive. They’re rather damning judgements, really. I don’t know whether I had a great realisation then, or if it came later, but somewhere over the course of Camino I realised that being really harsh with myself wasn’t going to give me the desired results. Somehow, I had to befriend myself and support myself a bit better. Otherwise, I’d end up crying myself all the way home. So, the room was a dump and my friends would be horrified if they saw it – so what? It would give me a chance to rest and to wash my clothing. That’s what I needed, and once I was asleep, I wouldn’t have to look at the bad décor. I made a decision to stay and my Ego just had to suck it up.

Out on the street, I enjoyed the buzz and the colour of downtown Pamplona. The winding streets were busy with tapas bars and tourist shops, and I felt that there were possibilities there – things to see, things to do, things to buy. I could feel the hive of activity. Pilgrims were easily recognisable with their hiking gear and backpacks, and just seeing them on the streets helped me to relax. It was reassuring to know that I wasn’t entirely isolated and that if I wanted to join them, I could. I was still part of the community.

At the post office, I decided to send a few of my belongings home in the mail. My bag was too heavy, so I cleared it out and waved goodbye to my long-sleeved thermal top, some pages from my guidebook (paper is heavy to carry), and my waterproof rain pants. All week, the weather had been hot and sunny, with cloudless skies at night. I felt confident about not needing raingear for the next phase of walking, and gladly sent the pants away in the post.

That afternoon, I bumped into some pilgrims I’d met on my first night in St. Jean, before we’d started walking at all. One of the German women had injured her knee rather badly in descending the Pyrenees and was hobbling along the street. Frustrated, she told me that it had been very steep and she’d twisted it somehow, and now the doctor wanted her to rest it for a couple of days before going on. She was pragmatic and sensible about her predicament, but grumpy and unhappy. She’d taken time off work to walk the Camino and couldn’t afford any time delays – the knee injury messed with her plans and she didn’t like it. On top of that, her new friends had decided to walk on ahead so she was facing an extra day in Pamplona, alone. This didn’t sit well, either.

Another German, a student we’d both met in St. Jean had also injured himself crossing over the mountains. He’d decided to walk the long stretch from St. Jean to Roncesvalles, up, over, and down the far side of the Pyrenees, all in one day. He was feeling healthy and strong, and was up for the challenge but by the time he’d arrived in Pamplona, he’d injured his feet so badly that he couldn’t walk at all. I never learned the details here but she told me that he was grounded: he would have to stay in Pamplona all weekend and see the doctor again on Monday, but already it was looking like his Camino was over. The doctor already wanted to send him home.

Together, we were disappointed for him–he was excited and hopeful, just like us, but had pushed himself too hard. After just 3 days, it seemed his Camino was cut short. What a loss. That’s among the worst news we could have heard and in the afternoon sunlight we hoped he was ok. Any of us could sustain the same injuries at any time: any of us could be sent home early. All we could do was to take it one day at a time. To this day, I’ve no idea what happened to him next. We didn’t meet in Pamplona and I never saw him again. It’s part of Camino–connecting with people and somehow never seeing them again, but wondering months later how they are getting on in life. I may never know but I still hope he is ok.

That evening, I ate a picnic of chorizo, cheese, and grilled asparagus on the grassy grounds of the citadel (La Ciudadela). Above me, a leafy tree provided shade and sent dappled light dancing across the grass. The wasps wanted my pineapple juice and I wouldn’t give it up, but I sat for an hour quietly content. It was the space and alone-time I needed, and I could feel my batteries recharge. That night, I relished the clean sheets and privacy of my own room, and closed my eyes to the world.

The rain fell heavily and unexpectedly, with loud claps of thunder and bright flashes of lightening. It sounded wild outside and I could think of only one thing: my rain pants are in the post office, waiting to go home.